This wasn't about taxes or guns or name-your-right-wing-bogeyman. It was about a federal government gone berserk.
I've found it entertaining to watch the media and those of a liberal political bent (sorry if I'm being redundant) paint the Tea Parties that took place recently around the country as an amalgamation of seething right-wing kooks carrying "I my AK-47" signs.
I was at the Tea Party in St. Paul. I apparently hung out at the wrong end of the Capital grounds, though, because I missed all of those angry, extremist, Obama-haters who I'm told were there.
Instead, at my end of the mall, I saw thousands of average, hard-working Minnesota taxpayers (many with family in tow) respectfully voicing deep concerns about the future of our country. Some were wearing suits. Most were wearing jeans or shorts. A few were in biker leathers. I missed all the folks in camo and face paint and saw no one brandishing their semiautomatic.
I talked to many people at the Tea Party. Some I knew; many I had never met. A majority of the people I spoke with had never been to a protest or political rally before. Many of them did not identify themselves with a particular political party. And almost no one was there as a "tax protester," despite most media reports identifying the event as simply an antitax protest.
Most of us were there based on something much bigger than just our own tax burden. This was about spending at the federal level that has gone completely berserk, about an exploding deficit that threatens the quality of life of our kids (and probably that of our kids' kids), and about a bailout mentality in Washington that turns the capitalist foundation of this country on its head.
All issues, by the way, that found their birth prior to Election Day 2008.
Which leads me to the question of hypocrisy.
One criticism I've heard of the Tea Parties is that the participants were a bunch of hypocrites, complaining about deficits now under President Obama while having ignored the deficits that President George W. Bush racked up in years prior, and complaining about bailouts now when Bush actually set the bailout train in motion before last fall's election.
Fair enough. I think, however, that most of the people I met at the St. Paul Tea Party would have no qualms laying blame for irresponsible spending and bailouts on Democrats and Republicans. Many of us have been complaining about deficits in Washington for several years. The last few months, however, have brought a level of irresponsibility never before seen in this country.
Bush, along with a Democrat Congress, brought us a deficit approaching $460 billion last year. The deficit in the first year of Obama's presidency: $1.85 trillion. Obama's first deficit will amass more debt than all 43 of his predecessors -- combined! His own budget director has admitted that the administration's 10-year budget plan, which includes deficits of $9.3 trillion, is "unsustainable." It means the next generation will pay very dearly for our irresponsibility through massive tax increases and a lower standard of living.
Should we have taken to the streets to protest a deficit of $460 billion? Maybe, but at least there was talk at that time (from both Obama and John McCain) that a new era of fiscal responsibility was at hand. Unfortunately, in the past few months we've seen a $460 billion annual deficit quadrupled (with no end in sight) and bank bailouts extended to life insurers, auto manufacturers and homeowners who bought houses they couldn't afford. Most of us who showed up at a Tea Party decided we couldn't sit quietly by as the leaders of our country went on an unprecedented spending binge with a plan to leave the bill for the next generation.
Were people at the Tea Parties angry? I suppose there was some anger -- particularly regarding the bailouts. But the overall mood was more that of concern (and maybe a little fear) about our kids' future and that of hope and a genuine pride in this great country. It was heartening for many of us to see that hundreds of thousands of ordinary, hard-working Americans throughout the United States were voicing the same concerns as we were.
It was a peaceful and respectful gathering. We didn't overturn any cars or break any windows. We didn't hurl any obscenities (or Molotov cocktails). We didn't incite any violence or test the police. And we didn't trash the Capitol lawn. While these facts probably made our event a failure for those who protest as part of their regular routine, most of the regular Minnesotans there thought it was a beautiful and uplifting day.
And all those right-wing militants and raging antitax extremists? I couldn't find a one.
Jeff Johnson is a resident of Plymouth and a member of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.